European Prize for Urban Public Space

Open-Air Library by KARO* & Architektur+Netzwerk
© Thomas Völkel


The European Award for Urban Public Space selected this year projects by KARO* with Architectur + Netzwerk and SNØHETTA


The European Award for Urban Public Space selected this year two projects as joint winners: the Open-Air Library in Magdeburg (Germany) by KARO* with Architectur + Netzwerk and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet in Oslo (Norway) by Snøhetta.


Which are the public projects that truly have citizens in mind? Are the designers more important than the developers who finance the projects? Is there a specific place that emphasizes the public concept over other aspects? And really, what is a public project nowadays?

These are some of the questions that we were asking ourselves when deciding which projects to showcase in this issue that exemplify successful public spaces. We agreed that using the awarded projects from this year’s European Prize for Urban Public Space would fit perfectly, as those same questions were the underlying criteria of the award.

The European Prize for Urban Public Space is a biennial competition with the aim to recognize and encourage recovery projects and defense of public space in cities. In 2000, the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona created this award and it is currently organized in collaboration with the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (Paris), The Architecture Foundation (London), the Nederlands Architectuurinstituut (Rotterdam), the Architekturzentrum Wien (Vienna) and the Museum of Finnish Architecture (Helsinki).

During the ten years of the award, there have been 935 projects submitted from forty different countries — Spain and Germany, the most awarded countries with four winners (all of them in the early editions) and two winners respectively. Other awarded countries include Croatia, Ireland, The Netherlands, Norway, and UK.

The projects awarded during its first decade range in scale, location within the city, financing, generation, process and the definition itself of what public might mean. As the architect David Bravo points out in his essay in “In Favour of Public Space” (ACTAR, 2010) ” the concept of public space is impossible to pigeonhole into specific formal types. (…) It is a subjective place, loaded with political content, which implies urbanity or, in other words, it is defined by the fact of coexistence in community and hence by awareness of ourselves and respect for others.”

The heterogeneous approach to public space is perfectly represented in this year’s edition, when two projects were named the joint winners: the Open-Air Library in Magdeburg (Germany) by KARO* with Architektur + Netzwerk and the Norwegian National Opera & Ballet in Oslo (Norway) by Snøhetta. These projects represent two differentiated ways of designing. The library is a magnificent and successful bottom-up approach, one that started with the direct involvement of the community to create a temporary installation that later turned into a real building. The Opera and Ballet building, however, is a top-bottom approach, a project commissioned by the Norwegian Government as the first step to redevelop the marginal port (and historic) area of Bjørvika.

Both different, both public, and both with citizens in mind.

For reference, below is the selection criteria used by the jury to evaluate all the submissions as explained in the official website of the award.



The criteria that will govern selection of the projects that are presented for the European Prize for Urban Public Space will not be exclusively related with the quality of the work from a strictly architectural point of view. The jury will also consider other aspects that enable evaluation of the urban transformation that has taken place in the specific setting.

– The explicitly urban nature of the intervention. The size of the city or town is not a limiting factor although priority will be given to medium-sized or large municipalities and those with a more general urban significance.

– The public ownership and/or clearly public-spirited vocation of the project.

– Appropriateness of interventions to the functions required of public space, from those directly linked with citizens’ occupation of a space, through to those pertaining to the collective imaginary.

– Capacity of the interventions to reduce social fractures within the city and eliminate physical and/or symbolic barriers in order to enhance quality of life for the inhabitants.

– Contribution of the projects in the domain of environmental improvement, in promoting public transport and innovation in the treatment of public installations, energy resources and urban waste.

-The degree of citizen participation and engagement in the conception, carrying out and/or subsequent maintenance of the space. Degree of acceptance by users.

– Transversal character of the planning concepts and/or objectives that have guided the project (sociology, demography, history, architecture, economy, engineering, landscaping, anthropology, etc.).


KARO* with Architectur + Netzwerk

Open-Air Library by KARO* & Architektur+Netzwerk
© Thomas Völkel

The southeast of Magdeburg belongs to these urban areas in Eastern Germany which are characterized by shrinkage, abandoned industrial plants and fallow land. A post-industrial city landscape with high unemployment and figures of vacancy up to 80%. This also concerns the district Salbke. The spatially intact city center stands almost completely empty. Its image is shaped by pasted over shop windows and fallow land. Here the encountered reality served as a resource and starting point for an urbanistic experiment: With the strategy “City on Trial” the site of the former district library has been transformed into an Open-Air Libray.

The project was planned right from the beginning as a social sculpture. The design and the functions were planned in a very close and open participation process. The aim was to create new and to enhance existing social networks. In collaboration with the local residents the fallow zones of the former village library were developed as a “bookmark”. Rememberance, history and narratives provided the background for the “re-occupation” of the abandoned expanse. An old empty shop was used as base for a temporary library and camp for a building workshop. There, books were collected and design strategies for reclaiming the site were developed.

With more than 1.000 lent beer crates the favourite draft was mocked up together with the locals as a temporary sculpture in the scale 1:1 [2005]. The shelves of the temporary library were filled by the residents with book donations. A festival followed with poetry slam and readings to prove the everyday suitability of the new urban situation. Since 2005 more than 20.000 books were collected and the local residents pursue a reading café quite near the site. It took some years to organise the money for the construction of the so called “bookmark”. Since 2006 the project is part of a research project by the federal government and was funded as a pilot project for realisation. In June 2009 the Open-Air Library opened officially. The residents which take care themselves for a reading-café as well as for the Open-Air Library call it a “library of confidence”: There is no registration needed and there is no control. You can take a book whenever you want, but should bring it back voluntary or at least another one. The shelves are never closed – the library is opened for 24 hours a day.

Open-Air Library by KARO* & Architektur+Netzwerk
© Thomas Völkel

Open-Air Library by KARO* & Architektur+Netzwerk
© Thomas Völkel

Open-Air Library by KARO* & Architektur+Netzwerk
© Thomas Völkel

Authors: KARO* with Architektur+Netzwerk
Collaborators: Christian Burckhardt Gregor Schneider Mandy Neuenfeld
Developer: Department of Building and Construction, Bürgerverein Salbke-Fermersleben-Westerhüsen e.V.
City: Magdeburg (230,052 inhabitants)
Country: Germany
Beginning year: 2005
Beginning of work year: 2008
End of work year: 2009
Area: 488 m2
Cost: 325,000 euros



Norwegian National Opera & Ballet by Snøhetta
© Ronny-André Bendiksen

The building is the first component of the urban transformation of the Bjørvika area, starting a change from run down harbour area to a modern part of Oslo.

The conceptual basis of the competition entrey, and the final building, is a combination of three elements – the wave wall, the factory and the carpet.

The wave wall: Opera and ballet are young artforms in Norway. these artforms evolve in an internation setting. The Bjørvika peninsula is part of a harbour city, which is historically the meeting point with the rest of the world. The dividing line between the ground “here” and the water “there” is both a real and a symbolic threshold. This threshold is realised as a large “wave wall” on the line of the meeting between land and sea, Norway and the worls, art and everyday life. This is the threshold where the public meet the art.

The factory: Snøhetta proposed that the production facilities of the operahouse should be realised as a self contained, rationally planned “factory”. This factory should be both functional and flexible during the planning phase as well as in later use. this flexibility has proved to be very important during the planning phase: a number of rooms and room groups have been adjusted in collaboration with the end user. These changes have improved the building’s functionality without affecting the architecture.

The carpet: The competition brief stated that the operahouse should be of a high architectural quality and should be monumnetal in its expression. One idea stood out as a legitimation of this monumentality: the concept of the togetherness, joint ownership, easy and open access for all. To achieve this, we wished to take the opera accessible in the widest possible sense, by laying out a “carpet” of horizontal and sloping surfaces on top of the building. this carpet has been given an articulated form, related to the cityscape. Monumentality is achieved through wide horizontal extension and not verticality.

The Oslo Opera is one of the three projects in the EU-project “Eco-Culture” which focuses on energy efficiency in clutural buildings. We have tried to minimize the numbers of materials – and surface treatments – to the minimum. These materials constitute the visible elements of architecture: stone, glass, aluminum, and wood.

Norwegian National Opera & Ballet by Snøhetta
© Ronny-André Bendiksen

Norwegian National Opera & Ballet by Snøhetta
© Ronny-André Bendiksen

Norwegian National Opera & Ballet by Snøhetta
© Ronny-André Bendiksen

Collaborators: Integrated art on the stone clad surfaces, with artists Kristian Blystad, Kalle Grude and Jorunn Sannes. Integrated art on the metal clad facades with artists Astrid Løvaas og Kirsten Wagle.
Developer: STATSBYGG
City: Oslo (586,860 inhabitants)
Country: Norway
Begining year: 2000
Begining of work year: 2003
End of work year: 2008
Area: 38,500 m2
Cost: 500,000,000 euros


KARO* is a platform for communication, architecture and spatial tactics founded in 2000 by Stefan Rettich, Antje Heuer and Bert Hafermalz. Stefan Rettich was visiting professor at the university of Kassel and is teaching since 2007 at the Bauhaus Kolleg in Dessau. KARO* has been invited to various international exhibitions, among others to the XI. and the XII. architecture biennale in Venice and has been awarded with the 2010 European Prize for Urban Public Space.

Snøhetta is an international architecture, landscape architecture, and interior design office based in Oslo, Norway and New York City. Snøhetta’s work includes the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt; the National Opera and Ballet in Oslo, Norway; and the Lillehammer Art Museum. They have been commissioned to reconstruct the public spaces in and around New York City’s Times Square.

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